Here's What We Know About How Plastic Is Impacting Our Health

The World Health Organisation (WHO) is now calling for urgent research into the health risks posed by microplastics in drinking water.

Plastic is in absolutely everything to the point where we’re now living in the ‘plastic age’ (according to one scientist) and calculations suggest 8.3 billion tonnes of it have been created in the last 60 years. More than 70% of this is now in waste streams – mostly in landfill, but also polluting the ocean. It’s impacting wildlife populations, infiltrating the food we eat and the water we drink, and it could be harming our health.

While there’s been a lot of noise around the need to recycle more, use fewer carrier bags and ditch single-use products, not as much fuss has been made about the potential impact of everyday plastics on human health – until now. And it seems our focus should very much be in this area as according to the wildlife charity WWF, we consume 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year around the world. This is the equivalent to ingesting an average of five grams of plastic – the weight of a credit card – every week.

For Dr Anna Watson, Head of Advocacy for the CHEM Trust, a charity working to protect humans and wildlife from harmful chemicals, it’s not the plastic itself that concerns her. “For me, one of the main concerns is that plastics contain hazardous chemicals,” she says. “They’re often added to the plastic for a certain reason, and we’re coming into contact with these chemicals in our everyday life through products that we have in our homes.”

smartboy10 via Getty Images

The impact of plastics on health was the topic of discussion at a panel hosted by the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) earlier this year. It was also the subject of a new and comprehensive report published in February titled Plastic & Health: the hidden costs of a plastic planet.

But the reality is that we don’t have a clear understanding of how plastic is affecting us. Emma Priestland, plastics campaigner for Friends of the Earth, tells HuffPost UK there are a lot of unknowns. “We do know that many types and uses of plastic have toxic additives, we just don’t know what the impact of that is,” she says. “There are also potential health issues at the very start of plastic’s life, as the extraction of the fossil fuels and production of plastic can release toxic chemicals and air pollution.”

Rolf Halden, associate professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering at Arizona State University, makes a valid point that plastic is so widespread now that it’s virtually impossible to find animal and human subjects who haven’t been exposed to plastic. So how then can you possibly compare results?

There are two key areas to consider when it comes to assessing the possible impact of plastic on health: firstly, the effect of tiny plastic particles (microplastics and nano-plastics) which can enter the human body through a variety of different routes, and secondly, the impact of chemicals which are used in the process of making plastic products of which there are thousands, according to Dr Watson.

Microplastics have now been found in Arctic snow, prompting fears it may cause “significant air pollution”. Meanwhile the World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for urgent research into the health risks posed by microplastics in drinking water. A report looking into existing research concluded that microplastics in drinking water don’t appear to pose a health risk at current levels. However, researchers caveated that the data is very limited and called for an urgent reduction in plastic pollution to reduce the global population’s exposure to potentially harmful substances.

In 2018, a study analysed faeces samples from participants across Finland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Russia, the UK and Austria, and found every sample tested positive for the presence of microplastics – usually considered as debris with sizes below 5mm – and up to nine different types of plastic resins were detected.

Dr Watson is particularly concerned about the presence of two chemical groups found in plastics: bisphenols, a group of chemicals that include bisphenol A (BPA) used in water bottles, food packaging and other items; and phthalates, which are used to make plastics soft (think: PVC). Some past studies have suggested these chemicals disrupt the endocrine system, which is responsible for producing hormones which regulate all kinds of bodily processes including growth and development, sexual function, sleep, mood, reproduction and metabolism.

“A tiny amount of hormone can have a big impact on the body,” Dr Watson suggests, “and if you’ve got any chemical that’s disrupting that very sensitive system, it can have a big impact. They’ve been linked to hormone-related cancers, infertility and reproductive problems and heart disease.” Studies in animals showed they were also linked to developmental issues in the young.

These chemicals have been banned in some products because of the suspected impact on health, but not others. “Bisphenol A has been banned in feeding bottles for babies and some of the phthalates are banned in children’s toys – but you still find them in lots of other things that children might come into contact with,” Dr Watson explains. For example, they’re not banned from food packaging, she explains.

Stuart Kinlough via Getty Images

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) deems that BPA is a safe chemical for use in production of plastics including refillable drinks bottles and food storage containers. “Scientists estimate how much of a chemical people can consume daily over their lifetime without being harmed by it,” reads the FSA website. “This is known as the chemical’s tolerable daily intake (TDI).”

BPA has a temporary tolerable daily intake set for it and the FSA suggests we currently consume less than the TDI for BPA from sources such as food containers. Scientists for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) are currently evaluating toxicological data on BPA, the results of which should be available in 2020.

The ‘Plastic & Health’ report agrees there is a “significant dearth of information” on the health impacts of toxic additives, and food packaging chemicals in particular. This is because only a handful of chemicals in use have gone through a health risk evaluation, the report says.

Dr Watson worries that a lot of people are exposed to harm without their knowledge or consent because chemicals in plastic and packaging do not appear on ingredient lists. She points out that a lot of the time we know a product is made from plastic, but not which chemicals have gone into the production of that plastic and whether they are hazardous or not.

She gives the example of a plastic toaster, where we don’t know which of 4,000 chemicals went into making it, and whether any of those chemicals are coming off onto our toast.

We’ve been trying to identify what hazardous chemicals are associated with plastic packaging and we found at least 148 particularly hazardous chemicals, either used in the process of making the plastic or in the end article,” says Dr Watson, “and 35 of those chemicals are known hormone-disrupting chemicals.”

How Does Plastic Get Into Our Bodies?

The exposure route often comes down to the fact we have plastic in our everyday lives. Dr Watson says some hazardous chemicals aren’t really fixed in the plastic and, as such, they can abrade off – “you can have them coming off things and collecting in dust in the house”.

It’s also possible for them to migrate from plastic food packaging into food, so you can be ingesting it. One study by researchers from the University of California suggested that dining out in restaurants and cafés, and consuming shop-bought sandwiches, were associated with higher phthalate levels in the body. An Italian study of school meals before and after the food was packaged found that average phthalate concentrations increased by more than 100% as a result of the packaging.

“There will also be chemicals coming through the waterway,” says Dr Watson, “but for most of us the exposure will be from living our everyday lives.”

Tiny plastics known as ‘microfibres’ have also been found by researchers in food and drink products such as mussels, table salt, honey and beer. They are released when clothes made from nylon, polyester or acrylic are washed, and the microfibres flow into rivers and oceans.

It’s clear there’s still very little known about plastic’s impact on health – it’s far more complex than you might think. So the general consensus is that it’s best to cut down on our plastic usage until we know more. “Because the majority of the world’s people are surrounded by plastic from the moment of birth it is hard to really understand the health impacts,” concludes Emma Priestland. “That’s one reason why we should take the precaution and start phasing out all but the most essential uses.”

5 Easy Swaps To Make

  1. Remove food from plastic containers and store them in glass containers instead.

  2. Switch your plastic water bottle for a reusable stainless steel one.

  3. Buy fruit and vegetables and take them home in a brown paper bag, rather than buying things from the supermarket that are ready-wrapped in plastic.

  4. For babies, use washable cloth nappies instead of disposable ones.

  5. Use washable cloths rather than face or baby wipes.